March 03, 2015
By Jeff Knapp
Bass fishing is big in the Mountain State, and it's no wonder; the opportunities are diverse, and options include sizeable reservoirs, impounded rivers, free-flowing rivers and streams, and smaller impoundments. About the only thing missing are natural lakes, a venue not missed thanks to the many other choices. In regard to black bass species, West Virginia has largemouths, smallmouths and even spotted bass for anglers to enjoy.
Much of this is due to the WVDNR and its management programs designed to provide the best possible fishing opportunities to resident and visiting anglers alike. And with so many types of water to choose from, there is something for everyone.
In general, black bass pretty much takes care of itself. Unlike trout, walleyes and muskies, which in some cases need a boost in the form of stocking, bass populations tend to be self-sustaining. Exceptions to this include situations where bass numbers are being reintroduced, perhaps in waters where pollution decimated the fishery.
This doesn't mean that the resource managers are responsible for the state's fisheries coast along when it comes to bass. During the past several years the WVDNR has been involved in several programs that directly affect (or examine) the state's bass fishing.
One of these projects was the largemouth bass tagging study. The object of the study, according to the WVDNR, was to determine the percent of largemouth bass caught and/or harvested annually, the influence of catch and harvest, as well as the influence of regulations on harvest.
During a three-year span, more than 4,000 largemouth bass were tagged by fisheries personnel. This took place in 14 reservoirs ranging in size between 30 and 1,500 acres. During subsequent years, anglers have reported catching 36 percent of these fish.
In lakes where harvest was allowed, an average of seven percent of bass were kept. Taking all of the data into consideration, the agency concluded that despite fairly high angler catch rates, harvest was extremely low, an indication of acceptance of catch-and-release ethics.
The Ohio River presents an interesting situation, both for anglers and fisheries managers, but its size provides an important recreational resource. A few years back, the WVDNR formulated an extensive plan regarding this highly industrialized river, calling for extensive stocking of several species, including smallmouth and largemouth bass. These stockings should have helped bolster bass numbers, which should now be up in the size range desirable for fishermen. However, the Ohio River is currently under special regulations for bass, meaning all fish less than 12 inches in length must be released.
Another bass-related issue of interest is that of Dunkard Creek. This northern West Virginia stream — a tributary to the Monongahela River — is an important fishing resource for that area of the state, particularly for smallmouth bass and muskies. In September of 2009 it experienced a significant fish kill, one caused by toxic golden algae. The event had a devastating effect on Dunkard Creek's fish community, as well as its mussels.
Though destructive, the event was singular in nature. Water quality improved, and the WVDNR has been working to restore fish and mussel populations. Adult smallmouth bass have been reintroduced, as well as fingerling stockings. Mussels, which provide an important yet relatively unseen part of the aquatic picture, will be harder to replace, if in fact they can. Native freshwater mussels help stabilize streambeds and filter the water.
Of course, there are numerous black bass opportunities in all manner of waterways, though most of the limelight on the state's bass fishing picture falls on the bigger reservoirs, which are for the most part U.S. Corps of Engineers lakes established primarily for flood control purposes. In general, these are the places where anglers can run big boats and big motors.
Stonewall Jackson Lake
Stonewall Jackson Lake is considered the premier lake by many in the state. Until recently, it was managed under a catch-and-release restriction for bass, something that was enforced since the lake's creation nearly 40 years ago.
Observations by fisheries personnel and the angling community regarding a gradual down cycle in the size structure of the lake's largemouth, as well as an escalating number of spotted bass, led to a regulations change. Anglers can now creel six bass a day, only one of which can be over 18 inches. It's hoped that the thinning of the largemouth population will allow the remaining largemouths to grow to the size that folks are more accustomed to seeing there.
Formed by an impoundment on the West Fork River, Stonewall Jackson Lake covers more than 2,600 acres. It has no horsepower limit, though there are extensive no-wake zones. The state manages most of the land surrounding the lake through a state park and an extensive wildlife management area.
Boaters can access at the Vandalia, Georgetown, Jacksonville ramps, as well as the state park. A disabled fishing area is found near the dam site.
Smallmouth bass like current, and West Virginia has lots of river that furnish that current. So it would be possible to overlook the smallmouth bass fishing adventures of an impoundment. In the case of Tygart Lake that be a shame, as it's one of the better smallie waters in the state.
Tygart Lake harbors plenty of the rock/boulder cover brown bass prefer. By early summer, the lake will be at full pool, which means the fish will have shoreline-related cover options such as boat docks. Smaller arms, fed by secondary creeks, will also be an option, as will the rocky points that guard such inlets.
Boat access sites are found Pleasant Creek and within the state park that sits along a portion of the shore.
The Tygart River, below the dam, also hosts a good smallmouth fishery, particularly during the summer when the water warms up (it's cooled significantly from the bottom discharge of the lake). Boat access is available at Grafton City Park.
An impoundment of the Elk River, Sutton Lake's 1,500 plus acres plays host to all three black bass species — largemouth, smallmouth and spotted bass.
A key to finding bass in Sutton Lake is in concentrating on the numerous laydowns that rim the shoreline. These provide the bulk of the bass-attracting cover in the lake. Other spots to key in on include the mouths of coves, such as those fed by Wolf Creek and Flatwoods Creek.
Boat access areas are located at the Bee Run Day Use Area and the Bakers Run campground. There is no horsepower restriction.
Also, both Sutton Lake and Stonewall Jackson Lake are easy to get to from Interstate 79.
Even though the big waters get the most attention, a lot of great fishing is available in small- to medium-size creeks and rivers, which often support good numbers of bass, smallmouths primarily, but spotted bass and largemouths in some circumstances.
In general, the better flowing bass waters are of low to medium gradient, and are of a warmwater nature (as opposed to coldwater environments suitable for trout).
The Greenbrier River provides good smallmouth bass action for more than 60 miles. Access is excellent, thanks to the Greenbrier River Trail that borders much of the river as it flows through Greenbrier and Pocahontas counties.
Perhaps the best section to key in on is the special regulations area that runs for six miles from Route 60 Bridge at Caldwell to Route 219 Bridge at Ronceverte. A slot limit is in effect on that section, protecting fish in the 12- to 20-inch range. Only one bass over 20 inches can be kept per day.
Though the Greenbrier is noted more for numbers of smallmouth bass than big fish, it does produce some quality-size brown bass, particularly during the spring and fall, when bigger bass tend to be more catchable.
The Greenbrier is a fairly mild river, though potentially hazardous areas are found along its lower end from Alderson to its merger with the New River.
The New River pretty much counters what is believed by many about good bass fishing being found on rivers and streams with moderate drop. Whitewater and big bass are indeed the combination of the New River, particularly that area within the New River Gorge.
This is an area best fished with a professional outfitter, unless anglers have extensive whitewater experience. But it's an investment in safety, along with the best chance at taking one of the 4-pound-plus smallmouth bass for which the New is noted.
Shore fishing is possible, one of the best areas being at the Glade Creek Access near Prince. Other good shoreline spots are near McCreery and Grandview Sandbar, where the road is proximate to the river.
The Hughes River, a tributary to the Little Kanawha River, is best known for muskie fishing, but the Hughes also holds both spotted and smallmouth bass.
Expect to catch spotted bass from pools and slower runs of this low-gradient stream. Smallmouth bass will be more common in current areas, especially once the water warms up.
A boat access site is found at Chucks Ford, in Richie County, but only smaller, shallow-draft boats are appropriate for the Hughes River.
Also, West Virginia contains many smaller, easy-to-wade streams that harbor bass populations that rarely see a lure or bait. Oftentimes these are the lower ends of trout streams, where the water becomes too warm for trout, but just right for bass.
Smallmouth bass are most common, but largemouths can also be caught, particularly in areas just upstream of smaller impoundments.
These are places take a bit of exploring to discover — something easy to do with resources like Google Maps and the GIS mapping programs available on the WVDNR website (wvdnr.gov) — but are worth the effort. When found, anglers tend to guard the area with the same secrecy afforded grouse cover and wild brook trout streams.
In addition to reservoirs of various sizes, free-flowing streams and smaller rivers that harbor bass, West Virginians also have the options provided by larger impounded rivers, such as the Ohio and Monongahela.
For years, the WVDNR has focused on the Ohio River to increase fish populations, and not just for bass, as walleyes and blue catfish are also getting attention.
Big rivers like the Ohio are hybrids, part river and part reservoir, thanks to the navigational lock and dam systems that impound them. Because of the inundated river channel — and the resultant loss of natural habitat — most of the bass fishing is concentrated in specific areas. The tailwater sections bellow dams are most obvious, and attract the most anglers.
The more upriver dams — Hannibal, Pike Island and New Cumberland — feature a fair number of smallmouth bass, though largemouths and spotted bass are both present. As one moves downriver to the Willow Island L&D and below, the latter become the dominant bass species.
In general, good fishing access is available below the dams for the shore-bound angler. The Hannibal Dam has a nice parking area, with boat access found just downriver in the lower end of Fishing Creek in New Martinsville.
Like the Ohio, the entire Mon River is controlled by locks and dams. Once one of the country's more polluted rivers, the Mon has (for decades now) supported a good fishery, one that includes bass.
Though smallmouths make up most of the mix, there are some largemouths, including some big ones, which were featured in recent tournament wins.
Lock and dams along the West Virginia portion of the Mon include the Opekiska, Hildebrand and Morgantown facilities. Boat access is found at Uffington, Star City and Morgantown.
Besides the tailrace areas on both the Ohio and Mon, bass anglers should concentrate on incoming streams and "city structure," such as bridge piers, pilings, docks and moored barges.
This is where the fish can be located; now you just need to get out there and pull them out.